Saranac Lake, N.Y.
In the end, Doug Hoffman couldn’t overcome the hurdle that all third-party candidates face: Most voters tend to pull the lever for the R or the D. Never mind that in this race, the absence of Hoffman would have left voters with a choice-in-name-only (a CHINO?). But Hoffman supporters should not despair. The Democrat who beat him, Bill Owens, faces a tough year ahead. If he runs in 2010, Hoffman will have the major-party label. Conservatives might get their congressman after all.
Victories for Chris Christie in New Jersey and Bob McDonnell in Virginia were certainly welcome wins for conservatives, but the sense of disappointment over Hoffman’s loss was palpable, both here in Saranac Lake and also on the web, where support for Hoffman really galvanized the race. “I couldn’t believe how his support took off online,” says Bob Miller, a Hoffman supporter and town councilman from nearby North Elba who attended last night’s watch party.
New York’s 23rd district is similar to others in the Northeast that Blue Dog Democrats have won in recent years. The district is basically conservative. Throughout the campaign, Owens stuck to a set of pro-business talking points in order to win over an electorate that has sent a Republican representative to Washington for the last 17 years. But his rhetoric will be put to the test when he takes his seat as a member of Nancy Pelosi’s majority.
If the Democrats move forward with the most ambitious items on their agenda — onerous health-care mandates, sweeping energy taxes, and a card-check bill that tilts the playing field in favor of unions over small businesses — Owens will be forced into some very tough votes. There are currently 52 Blue Dogs in the House. Pelosi needs at least twelve of them to pass legislation on a party-line vote. Assuming Owens joins this coalition of moderates, he’ll be feeling pressure from both sides: Either he votes for Obama’s agenda and loses popularity in his district, or he joins the defectors and faces retribution within his own party.
It’s a bind Hoffman can exploit, if he keeps his organization intact and makes another run. Pelosi has shown zero concern for the realities that Blue Dogs face in their districts. In June, she forced them to vote for a very liberal piece of legislation, the Waxman-Markey climate-change bill, which would make energy more expensive for the kinds of small businesses Owens needs to keep in his corner. If the bill does pass the Senate, it will probably differ from the House bill, necessitating a conference committee and another House vote before the next election.
Hoffman’s candidacy generated much talk of a civil war in the GOP. Ironically, it is Owens who is about to learn firsthand what it’s like to belong to a majority that brooks no dissent. When Blue Dogs voiced their concerns over the speed at which Pelosi was attempting to ram the health-care overhaul through the House, their fellow Democrats responded with contemptuous sneers. Rep. Maxine Waters, the liberal lawmaker from California, criticized Rahm Emanuel’s strategy of recruiting conservative Democrats to run in right-leaning districts, saying that Emanuel’s “chickens have come home to roost.” Former DNC chief Howard Dean warned of primary challenges for Blue Dogs if they didn’t support the public option.
These are the factors conspiring to make the next twelve months difficult for Bill Owens. When he comes up for re-election next year, he will have a record. Is Hoffman up for the challenge of another tough campaign? Bob Miller relates a telling anecdote. “When Doug got in the race, I told him, ‘They’re going to come after you.’ And he said, ‘Bob, anything that happens to me is nothing compared to what our Founding Fathers risked to stand up for their principles.’ That’s the kind of person he is.” The slogan printed on the backdrop at Hoffman HQ last night read, “Fight back.” In the next few months, conservatives will be urging Hoffman to fight on.
– Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff writer.